Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Worried about the draft? Don’t be

Many North Americans have been worrying lately that the governments of the United States and Canada will reinstate the draft, conscripting civilians of the right age to fight in the wars to which they have committed (or in which they are entangled, whichever your point of view). My advice is, don’t worry: they are not bringing the draft back for a long time. Here’s why.

In both the US and Canada, conscription would be extremely unpopular right now; and despite what the cynics say, politicians are held to account by public opinion. In recent polls, Stephen Harper’s popularity was falling to about 36%. George Bush’s is no better. If they instate conscription, their popularity will fall further and further. Their parties will not get elected again. In fact, if the Conservative Party of Canada attempted to push conscription through parliament, it would be defeated in a vote of no confidence; and if the Republicans tried the same in Congress, they would lose the midterm elections in November. So we’re safe in the short term. But what about the long term?

Sure, it’s hard to predict what will happen years from now. But I’m going to anyway. Tell me if this sounds presumptuous, but the draft is such an unpopular idea that unless there is an enormous crisis that presents a clear and present danger to the people and the state, it will remain unpopular enough to defeat any politician or party that backs it seriously. I use the word “seriously” because one Democratic congressman named Charles Rangel symbolically (facetiously) introduced a bill to universalise military service in the United States right before the War in Iraq. Well, Michael Moore can try to sign up the sons of congresspeople all they want, and he is about as likely to succeed as Charles Rangel, and for the same reasons.

First, the draft is still remembered not from when it was a good idea (the World Wars) but from the highly unpopular Vietnam War. Public opinion brought that war to an end and the same sentiment will disallow it for a while to come. Second, the governments fighting these wars, and the wars themselves, are sitting on restive electorates that will not take lightly to being buffaloed into accepting that they should die for the good of some far away group of people they don’t understand. From this argument I get my third point, that most North Americans do not understand why they should care what happens in Afghanistan and Iraq, forgetting that the planning of a certain World Trade Center bombing took place in Afghanistan after being ignored after the end of the Cold War. Fourth, as Wikipedia points out, and Michael Ignatieff endorses, the emphasis in developed countries today is not on numbers, but on strategy, better trained forces and better technology.

So if you are afraid that you will be drafted to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, or some other war you are afraid that your government is about to enter into, don’t be. They won’t be sending you anywhere against your will. And if I’m wrong, you’ll see me doing something I’ve never done before: attending a political protest.